Thursday, February 03, 2005


Basic Principles

Executive summary: Politicians and pundits can't seem to grasp simple principles, and neither can the public. Why? Maybe an insight of Johnny Carson's provides an answer.

Johnny Carson, who died last week, noted in a late interview that his audiences had gotten steadily more stupid as the years went past. Surely this can partly be put down to the fact that, in his later years, he may have been making references in his jokes to celebrities and public figures whose careers were current before some people in his audience were born. But he implied that his audiences had become less mature, responded more to puerile jokes, and responded with puzzled silence or polite, uncomprehending chuckles to jokes that required a bit of knowledge to get. No one was in a better position to recognize this than Carson.

Personally, I have to throw in the additional qualifier that I'm older now myself, and adults must have seemed relatively more mature to me when I was younger. Yet I agree with Carson's opinion. For instance, there were news reports the other day that 50% of American high school seniors think that the First Amendment is "no big deal" and agree with the statement that the government should have some say over what is written in newspapers. This is so utterly and literally un-American that I almost don't trust the news--visions of repressive neocons paving the way for oppressive censorship swirl in the more paranoid reaches of my brain.

I've been similiarly flabbergasted by the persistent failure of so many Americans to understand the basic principle behind the separation of Church and State. It was, of course (like I have to tell you), an Enlightenment reaction to the turmoil caused over the centuries in European countries. By keeping the State resolutely secular, it guarantees freedom of religion for all. The idea is that the government can't tell you, or anyone, what to believe in (religiously speaking), or how to worship. This means that you can worship as you please without fear of goverment intevention, retribution, or persecution. Of course, as a condition, you have to agree to tolerate other peoples' religions (which is a good thing, as otherwise there might be a movement to stomp out Evangelicalism--or at least Creationism), and you have to be content with confining religion to the home, Church, and private community, suffering it to remain absent from government offices and functions.

It's a simple principle. Yet hordes of Evangelicals and Pentacostals, and no small number of their representatives in Washington, persistently act as if it's an affront to decency. As if we need yet one more example of the problems secular government is designed to sidestep, Saddam Hussein's exaltation of his minority Sunni sect and marginalization (and worse) of the rival majority Shiite sect is a case in point. To understand the reason for the principle, all Christians have to do is imagine a minority religious sect seizing control of the government, imposing its own religion on everybody, and outlawing all others. Say, for instance, that the Mormons suddenly gained power, outlawed Evangelical and Pentacostal forms of Christianity, as well as traditional Protestants and Catholocism, and enforced deference to the Book of Mormon. How would Christians like that?

Why can't mainstream Christians understand that idea? It's not a difficult idea. And yet many of them just don't seem to get it. It really ought to be taught in school.

Sudden, involuntary, Kramer-like spasms
I didn't listen to George II's speech last night, for several reasons. First, in 30 years I've never heard a halfway decent State of the Union speech. Next, Dubya's voice makes me react like Kramer listening to Mary Hart. And I won't address every inanity in what he said, because, first of all, there aren't enough hours in the day, and besides, it seems whiney to complain about George to the degree he begs to be complained about. But just one little comment. Social Security is shared risk. That is, we set aside a little in case things go badly wrong and any of us really need it later. Investment is a risk opportunity. That is, you accept a risk of loss in return for the possibility of profit.

Put bluntly, investment is like gambling; Social Security is like insurance. They're opposites. You'd think that ordinary, modestly educated people, much less politicians and pundits, would be able to grasp this simple, basic principle. Why can't they? It's not a very difficult idea.

Of course, Johnny Carson would say this much more courteously. But maybe we the people have just plain gotten too darn dumb.

© 2005 by The Quotidian Meander

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